There’s a schism between what they teach you in library school and what actually happens in libraries. It’s no secret; I’ve even had a professor mention reading articles and books about “what they don’t teach you” about working in a library.
I have been incredibly fortunate to have a part-time job at an academic library while in graduate school. I got the job from a classmate, and started working weeks after the program began. I am hyperaware that my situation is exceptional, and I do not take it for granted. That said, I am also in a position to constantly juxtapose the theoretical library of class lectures with that of the real world library.
The academic library I work for is small. The institution is a small liberal arts-based university in a rural area. Our needs are pretty different from other academic libraries, and it’s created quite a challenge for me as a grad student.
My experience has been that being aware of patron demographics is not a significant part of the curriculum. However, it is a very important component of librarianship. If you don’t know who you’re serving, how will you be able to serve them? Seems to me an obvious question to address, yet it’s been largely ignored in my classes.
Knowing who you serve is important on so many levels, from spending money wisely to communicating with the patrons. In my opinion (admittedly one of a student, but a student with work experience), it is the key to a successful library. There’s a common phrase used in writing and performing, “know your audience,” and it is absolutely applicable in other realms, particularly the library where we are entrenched in service and our community.
Yet it’s barely been mentioned in any of my classes. Sure, I’ve had projects where I had to give a general description of the library and the patrons, but never enough to impact the project itself. It was almost an afterthought to the assignment.
At my job, I have noticed that the concepts taught in library school are not always the best fit. For the most part, our students do not have a need for several hundred databases. I have learned this from interacting with the students, learning what their assignments are, and talking with the professors. On the contrary, my courses have shifted the focus to electronic resource providers such as EBSCOhost and ProQuest and all that they make available. I do believe these are wonderful for research and accessibility, however any more than a handful for each subject taught is definitely overkill.
So here I am, weeks away from finishing my MLIS program, and I am contemplating how to approach finding out what the users’ needs are as a professional librarian. I’ve learned about needs assessments and surveys from the librarians, which are used to ask the faculty what they teach in class and to find out what the students want to read more of for fun. I encourage everyone to consider the importance of learning who is coming into the library, what they need, and how to find out their needs.
Melissa Doyle is a Library Assistant at Reinhardt University and she is about to graduate with her MLIS from University of North Texas.